Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My Missouri Interlude

When I told my exuberant, wonderful 8th-grade science teacher that I was moving from the outskirts of Nokesville, Virginia to the metropolis of Kansas City, Missouri, he did the only think he could do: burst into song as he danced around the lab: “Kansas City. Going to Kansas City. Got some pretty little women there, and I’m a-gonna get me one!”

I was to live there for three years, while my father attended Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In those days, it was considered among the more liberal of the six seminaries operated by the Southern Baptist Convention, but it was already in the throes of skirmishes between thoughtful, erudite professors and reactionary trustees with little intellect but much power (that is to say, money). Happily, I was able to take evening classes with some of these amazing scholars, completing a Certificate of Christian Education with courses on archeology, theology, and even ministerial marriages. (When the reconquest of the institution was completed years later, this opportunity was renamed the Diploma of the Ministering Wife, making the gender biases of the new bosses quite clear.)

Through the wonders of the Internet – and especially Facebook – I am now in touch with some of my friends from my days in Kansas City, but over the 30 years I have been gone, there have been days, weeks, and probably even months when I would forget that I ever lived there. I consider the seven years I spent in Nokesville – my “Opie Taylor” years – more formative, but I do not know why those three years in KC can drop out of mind sometimes.

They were certainly formative years in a lot of ways. After seven years in one tight-knit community (and fourteen in the general vicinity of rural, northern Virginia), we moved a thousand miles away. This was jarring, to say the least. During the summer and fall of 1977, KC boosters were trying, ironically, to build on the “Virginia is for Lovers” campaign. For the first several months I muttered “I HATE KC” every time I saw the “I HEART KC” emblem. I guess this eventually purged my homesickness. The next move -- to Annapolis, Maryland for my senior year of high school – was much easier, though our family did try to figure out a way for me to stay in the excellent North Kansas City schools. In the end, I really think this experience contributed a lot to my adult life as a nomad.

Missouri was only the beginning.

Barely noticed her
When I do make associations with Kansas City, I sometimes conflate time and space. By this I mean that a memory will be triggered – perhaps by the music of R.E.O. Speedwagon, Styx, Kansas, or even Boston – and I will be transported back to some night in Kansas City. Likewise with any reference to Star Wars. I only ever saw the original one, and probably only 2/3 of that, as the first theatrical release was the destination for my first real date. As far as I know, neither the movie nor any of these bands has anything to do with Kansas City, but there the association rests for me. And what began in Missouri continues in my travels: I associate certain pop-culture details or linguistic or political fads with the place I lived at the time I first noticed them. If such a detail is no longer present, I have no idea whether it is because I left it in place, or that I left it in time. My wife, fellow vagabond and co-blogger Pamela has had the same experience.

Incidentally, I have taken a couple of geographic oddities for granted. Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO) is bigger than Kansas City Kansas. It is not the biggest city in Missouri, though: that is St. Louis (which I only know from numerous pass-throughs and a stop -- we really splurged -- at the former Noah's Ark restaurant in St. Charles). Also, North Kansas City is a separate city that is, well, north of Kansas City. But when the regional airport was built (halfway, it seems, between downtown and the corner of Nebraska), Kansas City, which had been south of the Missouri River, annexed every unincorporated bit of land between the river and the airport, adding scores of square miles, thousands of people, and not a few cattle to its tax base. So we lived in Kansas City north and had to go south to reach North Kansas City. I attended the excellent Northgate Junior High School in Kansas City and the even more excellent North Kansas City High School in NKC. Just north of us (but to the south and east of the airport) was the independent little city of Gladstone, which included a cleverly named park: Happy Rock. Get it?

I should not mention the Missouri River without pointing out an additional geographic oddity, which I learned from William Least-Heat Moon's excellent travelogue River Horse. The book describes his coast-to-coast journey by boat, which includes a harrowing journey during high floods along the lower part of the Missouri River. He makes a convincing case that the Missouri and Platte Rivers should properly be considered the upper reaches of the Mississippi, even though they enter the "main" stem at a right angle, and that by this measure the Mississippi is the longest river in the world.

Be sure to read Pam's main entry for Missouri, either by scrolling down or by clicking here.

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